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The redox biology of redox-inert zinc ions

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)311-326
Number of pages16
JournalFree Radical Biology and Medicine
Early online date6 Jan 2019
Accepted/In press4 Jan 2019
E-pub ahead of print6 Jan 2019
Published1 Apr 2019


King's Authors


Zinc(II) ions are redox-inert in biology. Yet, their interaction with sulfur of cysteine in cellular proteins can confer ligand-centered redox activity on zinc coordination sites, control protein functions, and generate signalling zinc ions as potent effectors of many cellular processes. The specificity and relative high affinity of binding sites for zinc allow regulation in redox biology, free radical biology, and the biology of reactive species. Understanding the role of zinc in these areas of biology requires an understanding of how cellular Zn2+ is homeostatically controlled and can serve as a regulatory ion in addition to Ca2+, albeit at much lower concentrations. A rather complex system of dozens of transporters and metallothioneins buffer the relatively high (hundreds of micromolar) total cellular zinc concentrations in such a way that the available zinc ion concentrations are only picomolar but can fluctuate in signalling. The proteins targeted by Zn2+ transients include enzymes controlling phosphorylation and redox signalling pathways. Networks of regulatory functions of zinc integrate gene expression and metabolic and signalling pathways at several hierarchical levels. They affect enzymatic catalysis, protein structure and protein-protein/biomolecular interactions and add to the already impressive number of catalytic and structural functions of zinc in an estimated three thousand human zinc proteins. The effects of zinc on redox biology have adduced evidence that zinc is an antioxidant. Without further qualifications, this notion is misleading and prevents a true understanding of the roles of zinc in biology. Its antioxidant-like effects are indirect and expressed only in certain conditions because a lack of zinc and too much zinc have pro-oxidant effects. Teasing apart these functions based on quantitative considerations of homeostatic control of cellular zinc is critical because opposite consequences are observed depending on the concentrations of zinc: pro- or anti-apoptotic, pro- or anti-inflammatory and cytoprotective or cytotoxic. The article provides a biochemical basis for the links between redox and zinc biology and discusses why zinc has pleiotropic functions. Perturbation of zinc metabolism is a consequence of conditions of redox stress. Zinc deficiency, either nutritional or conditioned, and cellular zinc overload cause oxidative stress. Thus, there is causation in the relationship between zinc metabolism and the many diseases associated with oxidative stress.

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